You know that sinking feeling in your stomach when mean words have been hurled at you. You just stand there, face bright red, palms wet. Put-downs, or unkind remarks about a person’s physical appearance or demeanor, are an all too common and all too unfortunate form of intimidation and bullying in school. They differ from other forms of bullying, which can be motivated by racial, religious, or other prejudices. How can you help your child navigate these mean-spirited comments they will inevitably face?
First, create a space where your child can safely share the events of their day. This can be on the drive home from school, over dinner, before bedtime, or any time that fits into your schedules. Make sure your child knows you are interested and invested in their daily activities— what they learned, who they played with, etc. By establishing a routine of sharing early in your child’s life, they are more likely to come to you when negative experiences occur.
Once your child has shared a situation with you, gauge the level of extremity. Take time to absorb and process all the information before entering protection mode. What happened? Who was the other party? What was the intention? How do all these things affect your child and their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing?
As a parent, it is easy to feel defensive and quickly react when your child is the subject of bullying. But by first soaking in all the facts, you will have a better grip over what will best benefit your child. Your child will also appreciate a calm handle on the situation and feel more comfortable opening up to you.
Once you have gauged the situation, address it with your child. Explain what put-downs are and how they can impact one’s thoughts and feelings. Put-downs can be thoughtless comments, sometimes perpetuated by your child’s friends or classmates. Elementary-aged children are learning what is and isn’t okay to say, meaning sometimes they may say something inappropriate at the cost of another’s feelings.
Tailor your conversation to the incident. Be sure to bolster your child’s confidence by combatting the comment(s): your child looks to you as a beacon of both fact and reassurance. They trust your word. If you tell them they are beautiful, they will believe it; if you tell them they’re smart, they will believe it. Counter the put-down, while acknowledging and validating the hurtful impact.
A major point to emphasize is that “getting even” is never the answer. A meaner comment is not an appropriate response. There is a balance between standing up for oneself and perpetuating negativity—which could prompt your child getting in trouble.
Tell your child that if they hear another child being subjected to put-downs, find a way to support their peer. Inviting their classmate to play, sitting with them at lunch, or complimenting the trait that was just made fun of are all good ways to combat put-downs. Helping others will help fuel your own child’s internal processing with put-downs.
Unfortunately, we can’t be with our children all the time to guard them from the perils of early childhood bullying. However, we can address the issues they may face early on, and give them the tools they need to understand, verbalize, and process their feelings.